Category Archives: reading tips

Recognizing sounds come first, not recognizing letters

Which comes first, reading or speaking?  Speaking, of course.  A one-year-old can say a few words, but hardly any one-year-old can read.  Most two-year-olds can say hundreds of words and can form tiny sentences, but hardly any two-year-olds can read.

Which comes first, recognizing sounds or recognizing letters? Recognizing sounds, of course.  A one-year-old can recognize and repeat the sounds of many words, but few one-year-olds can recognize letters.  A two-year-old knows hundreds of words, but hardly any two-year-olds recognize more than a handful of letters.

So if sounds and speaking come before recognizing letters and reading, why do some teachers teach the ABC’s first—recognizing visual “pictures” of sounds—rather than teaching the sounds of our language first?

Are we teaching reading backwards?

What if instead of teaching children to read “cat” using ABC’s, we taught children to read “cat” orally, with no ABC’s?  What if we taught children how to recognize the separate sounds that form words like “cat”?  What if we said “c-a-t” slowly, emphasizing the “c,” “a,” and “t” sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?  What if we asked preschoolers to break down little words like “cat” into their beginning, middle and ending sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?

This would be a radically different approach to teaching reading.  But this approach would align with what researchers are learning about how our brains learn to read.

The foundation of reading is not ABC’s.  The foundation of reading is sounds, sounds listened to by a child and sounds repeated aloud by a child.

How would that work in practice?

  • You, the teacher, would say, one-at-a-time, the 40-plus sounds of the English language. Your student would repeat those sounds, one at a time.  If some sounds were hard for the student to say, you would repeat those sounds and ask the child to repeat those sounds until you were sure the child could hear and pronounce those sounds correctly.
  • Next, one-at-a-time, you would say some tiny words and ask the child to say each word and to say the sounds in the word. You would model how to do this with many words until the child knew what was expected.  You would make it a game, looking around and saying the name of an object nearby like “bat.”  You would sound out the word slowly—“b,” “a,” “t”—and ask the child to do the same.  At first this might be hard for the child, but once she figures out what is expected, she would sound out words quickly.
  • With practice, the child would understand that individual sounds, when combined, form words. Only then would you introduce ABC’s.

Pronunciation of words is an important aspect of learning to read.  Our brains store the sounds of words just like they store the meaning and the look of words. In your mind, right now, as you are reading these words, you are saying the words, right?  And you are remembering the meaning of those words, though at this stage of your life, that might be so automatic that you are unaware of it.  Long ago when you were learning to read, it was the sound of the words which came first to you, long before you knew what the words meant or before you could decipher the letter patterns of words.  Sounds come first.

For more information, read the research of Linnea Ehri (2002).

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read–part 2

Once you are sure your child can hear and say the sounds of the English language, the next step is to make your child understand that we use letters to represent those sounds.child making letter T with his body

One good way is to explain that people a long time ago figured out how to make pictures of sounds.  Those pictures of sounds are called letters.  In English those pictures are called ABC’s.

Say the child’s name.  Emphasize the sound at the beginning of the name.  Then show or draw the letter which the child’s name begins with.  You don’t need to call the letter by its name yet; rather, call the letter by the sound it represents.

For example, if your child’s name is Teddy, say his name emphasizing the “t” sound at the beginning of the name.  Show or draw the letter “t” but when you point to it, say the “t” sound.  Collect or point out objects which begin with the same sound.  Help the child to see that the “t” sound is in many words.  Kids will hear the sound more readily at the beginnings of words.

Some kids catch on fast and you can add another letter sound almost immediately.  For others you should focus on one sound at a time for several days.  Start with names of family members.  Focus on the first sound of the name, not middle sounds or ending sounds.  Move on to objects the child sees or uses daily.  Keep reviewing the letter sounds the child has already learned.

Stick to sounds which follow a one-to-one sound-to-letter correspondence.  For now, avoid names like Yvonne or Celine in which the first sound of the name is not represented by the letter usually associated with that sound.  Names which begin with digraphs like Shelly or Thad should also be avoided for now.  Four-year-olds can understand one-to-one logic.  Save words in which one sound is represented by two letters until later.

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read

But you don’t know where to begin.  Well, you’re in luck, because I do.  And for the next few months I am going to offer a sequenced approach to teaching reading to a beginner.

Reading starts with hearing sounds properly.  Make sure your child can hear the 44 or so sounds of English.  How?  You say a sound and ask the child to repeat the sound.  If the child can repeat the sound properly, he or she can hear it properly.  If not, work on the few sounds which your child cannot pronounce.  Say words with the sound in them.  Ask the child to mimic you.  Show pictures of everyday objects which have the sound in them.  Ask the child to say the word.

The 44 sounds are listed below.  In some parts of the US, 43 or 45 sounds might be used because of regional dialects.  The same holds true of other English speaking countries.

At this point, you needn’t use the word “letter” or teach the ABC’s.  Hearing and speaking sounds comes first.

Is it better to teach three-letter or two-letter words first

Most phonics systems begin with three letter words like “dad” and “pat.”  You could just as easily begin with two letter words like “at” and “ab.”  Don’t worry if the word isn’t real.  A four- or five-year-old child won’t recognize that some words are not real.  If the child seems perplexed, explain that “ak” is not a real word.  But if the child doesn’t question a word, as long as he pronounces it correctly, skip the explanations.

I have found that skipping the two-letter short-vowel words is a mistake.   If a child becomes used to always seeing a consonant at the beginning of a word, he might become confused if a word starts with a vowel.  If a child knows his sounds and letter correspondence, then there is no reason why two-letter words should confuse him.  To avoid this problem, I would not wait to teach two-letter words.

When the child has successfully combined most of the first handful of letters into words, add more consonants but keep the same vowel.  “H,” “j” and “l” are good second choices.  You might think that “h” has different sounds when combined with “c” and “s” (“ch” and “sh”).  True.  But as a first letter, “h” always sounds like an “h.”  The sound of “h” has a one-to-one correspondence to the letter “h” at the beginnings of words; it is distinct.  The child won’t be confused because no words end in only “h.”

How long does this take?  Some kids pick up the “code” of reading almost intuitively but for others it’s a long struggle to learn.  Don’t pressure a child to move on if the child isn’t ready.

How much do you know about teaching reading to little kids?

  1. Which should be taught first—blends at the beginnings of words (flag, stop) or blends at the ends of words (hand, fist)?

  1. Is it important for pre-K or kindergarten students to know their ABC’s in order?


  1. Which are the hardest vowel sounds for a child to distinguish?          A and E      E and I      I and O      O and U


  1. Do children who can name many items  read better?

family reading together

  1. Is the best way to teach reading to have the child memorize words so that every word becomes a sight word?


  1. Are all kids developmentally ready to learn to read by kindergarten?


  1. What two letters is a child most likely to mix up?


  1. If a child ignores punctuation, is that child likely to have reading comprehension problems?

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

  1. Is following your child’s teacher’s advice on how to teach reading a good idea?


  1. How many letter sounds does your child need to be able to hear and pronounce?





  1. Blends at the beginnings of words are easier for children to learn. So are single consonants at the beginnings of words.  End of word sounds are harder to hear.

  1. No, the order of ABC’s is not important until a child is old enough to sort words into alphabetical order—a second or third grade skill.


  1. E and I are the hardest. That is why it is better to teach CVC words with A, O, and U vowels first, and to spend more time teaching E and I words after the A, O, and U words are mastered.


  1. Yes. Research shows that the two best predictors of reading achievement are an awareness of letter sounds and an ability to rapidly name objects.

young girl with pencil in mouth

  1. No. The best way to teach reading is to use a systematic phonetic approach.  Eventually, the words we read repeatedly become sight words, but we need to know how to decipher new words, and to do that we need to understand the rules of phonics.


  1. No. Usually by age 7 most kids are ready to learn how to read, but even then there are outliers.


  1. Lower case b and d are the most mixed up. Some kids recognize the difference immediately, and others take years to discriminate between those two letters.

  1. Yes. Ignoring punctuation means ignoring meaning.


  1. It depends where you child’s teacher was educated. In 2016 the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabi of teacher training programs in the US and found that 39% of the schools teach what the research proves.


  1. In most places in the US, 42 sounds comprise our spoken language. However, regional dialects can increase or decrease that number of sounds slightly.


How’d you do on this quiz?  Read comicphonics regularly to know how to teach your child reading based on what the research shows.


When two letters equal one sound: teaching digraphs

mother works with child reading story bookWhen children learn to read using a phonics method, they start by learning that each sound has a one-to-one relationship with a letter.  This makes reading seem logical to little children.  See a B and say “b.”  As teachers we don’t muddy beginning readers’ thinking by telling new readers that some letters mean more than one sound or that some letters, when paired with other letters, make totally different sounds or that some sounds can be represented by multiple groupings of letters.  We save that for later, after children have “mastered” the concept of CVC words and blends.

But eventually children learn that written English is not as logical as it seems at first.  Most advanced phonics instruction begins by teaching children consonant digraphs, two letters which, when paired, represent a sound that neither of the individual letters represents.  The pairs which are taught first usually include ck, qu, sh, ch, and th.

If you find that children balk at learning this part of the “code,” this is normal.  A four- or five-year-old’s understanding of logic is not the same as an adult’s.  One-to-one relationships between sounds and letters makes sense to little children, but one-to-two relationships do not.

I recommend you start with one digraph per lesson.  Just like beginning-of-word blends are easier for children to learn than end-of-word blends, beginning-of-word digraphs are too.  The exception is “-ck.”  I  teach that while I am teaching CVC words containing blends.

But for other digraphs, I usually start with “sh” because there are lots of “sh” one syllable, short-vowel words such as shag, shed, shin, shot, and shut.  I try to make learning “sh” at the beginning of words a game, using letter tiles and BINGO cards with “sh” words.

After a student becomes comfortable pronouncing “sh” at the beginning of words, I move on to another beginning-of-word digraph.  The order isn’t important, but it is important that you constantly review the previously learned digraphs as you move along.  For children who find remembering difficult, it is especially important to advance slowly, spending a large part of each lesson reviewing.

When the student is reasonably secure with pronouncing these digraphs at the beginnings of words, I might tackle teaching how to pronounce digraphs at the ends of words, one at a time.  Or I might delay this kind of instruction, depending on how difficult it was for the student to learn the beginning of word digraphs.

The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)